Will Rogers’s popularity never goes out of style, but instead seems to be more pertinent now than ever. A beloved American icon, cowboy philosopher, vaudeville performer, actor, radio commentator, newspaper columnist, and lecturer, Rogers won hearts with his candid, even if often piercing, satire on American life.
As Will Rogers, Rich Hoag is strikingly authentic. His physical resemblance to the icon is recognized easily from the vintage film clips of Rogers projected on a large screen throughout the performance. From his friendly, impish smile and down-to-earth talk to his cuffs and chaps, Hoag successfully impersonates Rogers’s cowboy style and irresistible charm. Although Hoag drew laughter from the audience on Saturday by reading from the current issue of the Ventura County Star and jesting about the lifestyle in Ojai, his performance essentially was rooted in Rogers’s writing. “My favorite topic is politics,” was one of his famous quotes, and politicians, presidents, and lawyers featured largely in his humor. In this 90-minute performance, Hoag blended hilarious personal anecdotes with witty comments on a variety of subjects, ranging from cannibalism, Creationism, and the battle of the sexes, to poignant musings on the fate of the displaced Cherokee Indians. Part Cherokee, Rogers quipped, “My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.”
If Hoag brought Rogers’s public persona to life, Jennifer Shepard helped reveal his lesser-known private side. As Betty Blake, Rogers’s wife of 27 years, the radiant Shepard portrayed her enduring love for Rogers, despite his surprisingly taciturn nature. Overall, Hoag and Shepard, who are both reprising their roles of Will and Betty, complemented each other. A tastefully designed set by Russell Pyle evoked nostalgia for the 1930s. A porch, a horse saddle with ropes, an antique radio, and a rollaway desk where Rogers read his papers daily all suggested the basic necessities of this “cowboy philosopher” who “never yet met a man [he] didn’t like.” Nevertheless, Hoag/Rogers’s allusions to war, Imperial Rome, the Great Depression, and the stock market crash contrasted with the peaceful living room set while they reminded the audience that sometimes history repeats itself. For the director James O’Neil, this homage to Will Rogers is also a tribute to his life-long friend Rich Hoag. Indeed, the Rubicon’s production of Will Rogers’ America is “a perfect synergy between an actor and the character he portrays.”